Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

By Russell Smith

MAY 17, 1999: 

D: Michael Hoffman; with Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Kevin Kline, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel, Christian Bale, Dominic A. West, Stanley Tucci, Sophie Marceau, David Straithairn. (PG-13, 115 min.)

For my money the most gloriously, enchantingly trivial play in the Shakespearean canon, A Midsummer Night's Dream may also be the most screwup-proof of the bard's works. The story, already brimming with matchmaking fairies, love potions, and human-animal transformations, couldn't be any more preposterous than it already is, and therefore stands up well to the efforts of latter-day interpreters to "open it up" with their own gratuitous flights of whimsy. Michael Hoffman's contribution to the long tradition of nontraditional Shakespearean settings is to change the locale from ancient Greece to late 19th-century Italy, replete with background music from La Traviata. The only obvious benefits to this approach seem to lie in opportunities to showcase cleavage-flaunting period costumes and the almost pornographically gorgeous Tuscan scenery. Still, I guess it's no sillier than a hip-hop-pumping Romeo and Juliet set in Miami's South Beach. Where Hoffman (Soapdish, One Fine Day, Restoration) really earns his indulgence is in his masterful balancing of outlandish, hallucinatory splendor in the production design with basic reverence for Shakespeare's language and characterizations. This is a sublimely sensual film. Bathed in glitter, summer sweat, and moonlight, overflowing with giddy poetic language and shameless low comedy, it has a seductive, genuinely dreamlike feel that invites total surrender to its spell. Although Hoffman has courted disaster by packing his cast with so many stars who can dominate the screen, his gamble pays off thanks to their willingness to subordinate their charisma to the task of nurturing the story's inherent magic. Among the host of delightful performances, I especially enjoyed Everett as the brooding fairy king Oberon, whose tiff with queen Titania (Pfeiffer) sets the general romantic chaos in motion, and Tucci as his amiably maladroit sidekick, Puck. Kline's Bottom (the actor/ass with whom Pfeiffer becomes enamor'd after she gets a dose of Oberon's love juice) is featured more prominently than in the play. Kline runs with the opportunity, hamming it up shamelessly while adding a bit of pathos and vulnerability to the blustering buffoonery we normally associate with the character. Flockhart takes a manic, highly entertaining vacation from her dingbat Ally McBeal persona as perpetually lovelorn Helena who, thanks to Puck's ineptitude, ends up being pursued by not only her own lust object, Demetrius (Bale), but also best friend Hermia's swain, Lysander (West). These actors are masterful at Job No. 1 in any Shakespeare play, which is to do justice to the ornate and recklessly poetic -- yet richly communicative -- quality of his dialogue. A Midsummer Night's Dream is by no means the most important Shakespeare play, but it's the one that first made me and many others fall in love with Shakespeare. With this luscious, intoxicating adaptation, Michael Hoffman has not only proved that he shares that love, but has poured it into a darn-near irresistible trap for even those who seldom venture into the land of blank verse-spouting men in tights.
4.0 stars

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